Science Fair in Pictures: First Grade Edition

It all started when Benji said he wanted to collect elements. Into my mind flashed a vision of a pile of random junk all jumbled together, at best contained in some large and battered cardboard box, that Benji refused to throw away. Benji would clutch every precious item to his chest and refuse to relinquish it because it contained, for example, phosphorus or selenium.

This unappealing vision nearly caused me to reflexively toss out a firm “no.” But I gave it a little more thought and came up with, if I may say, a moderately brilliant idea: Collect tiny samples and tape them to the old kindergarten science fair poster board. This, combined with Benji’s willingness to collect samples that contain an element, rather than pure samples, made the project possible. Continue Reading >>

“When I have a bad day, I can do science.”

Thus quoth Benji, who has never tried to titrate by hand.

However, it was really true that despite his having a cold, we went and did science and he seemed happier than most of the previous 48 hours.

Our adventure started in Teresa’s lab, where she used her access to strong acids, hit plates, a fume hood, and a centrifuge to good effect.

Dissolving a copper penny in acid.
6 M acid is too slow, let’s use undiluted acid.
Add a base and get a pretty blue precipitate.
Heat it up to obtain a lovely brown sludge.
Add…I think it was one more acid, but I’m not sure, and you get transparent blue liquid again! Chemistry is magic!
What the heck, let’s centrifuge some of the leftover precipitate.
Don’t break this.
Spinning at 4000 gravities.

As an added bonus, we made rocket fuel using melted potassium perchlorate and a Skittle.

Dang, those Skittles really burn!

After we finished having all that fun, we went and Benji was a test subject at the iLab doing some brain science. Continue Reading >>

If you give a mommy a data set

Too bad they don’t have this T-shirt in kid sizes, because today science just got real here.

If you give a kid a car, he’s gonna race it down the slide.

This morning we started sliding Matchbox cars down our outdoor slide. It didn’t take long for us to start racing them, and comparing which one went farthest.

And if he slides cars down the slide, he’ll want to measure how far they go.

Naturally (at least, for us) it wasn’t long before we pulled out our 100′ tape measure and started actually measuring how far the cars went, compared to each other. Benji quickly learned how to read the tape measure, and it wasn’t long before he accurately reported the distances himself.

And if he measures how far they’re going, mommy will want to write it down.

Of course, we then started recording the distances each car went…

And finally, 57 cars later, we had a full data set. (Although, in reviewing it, I suspect we may have done one car twice. Noooo!) I should mention that this took a long time, but our interest never wavered. We even took an hour-long break to do errands, but immediately resumed when we got back home.

And if you give a mommy a data set, she’s going to turn it into a bar graph.

This step tested Benji’s patience, since I had to measure and draw little lines very meticulously, and I had to uniquely number each car’s data. I could’ve done it in Excel, but I felt like seeing me graph it by hand would help him understand the process better.



By the time I was 10 cars into drawing the graph, Benji was learning how to read the graph. By the time I reached Car 30, he was getting pretty good, and easily understood the longer line = car went farther. He also immediately, without my telling him, figured out that the two dots right on the X-axis were the two bulldozers that didn’t even get off the slide.

Unfortunately, lacking graph paper the size of butcher paper, I had to keep the Y-axis increments to every 3″. That made it tough for him unless the bar actually touched a Y-axis line, but he’s getting the concept of reading the graph as “it’s close to X feet.” This is tough since he’s the kid who, when told “It’s almost 6:00,” will retort, “No, it’s 5:58.”

Next up: Plotting the data in Excel and seeing if we have a normal distribution. Also, I want to borrow a fairly delicate scale and weigh each vehicle to see if weight correlated with distance traveled. Having observed all these vehicles, however, I noticed that the very farthest distance — 9’1″! — actually involved the car bouncing perhaps a dozen times after hitting the ground the first time. We measured where each vehicle came to rest, not where it first struck. For the farthest-traveling vehicles, the final stop spot usually involved at least a couple extra feet of bounces, so while a heavier vehicle might come off the slide first, it didn’t always end up landing farthest away.

This is all normal summertime activity, right?

Did I mention planets?

First a silly story. Benji and Ian have been looking at Wikipedia entries for bodies in the Solar System. While doing this, they encountered the term trans-Neptunian objects, which Ian explained and Benji understood as “anything out past Neptune.”

Later, we learned that there’s a new dwarf planet out in the Kuiper Belt (currently euphoneously named 2015RR245), and Benji’s comment was classic: “OH! Daddy! This must be a trans-Neptunian object!” 

After that, most of our morning was devoted to planets.

When coloring planets, we have had to break out reference guides to make sure to use the correct colors.

Benji’s pen-opening technique results in ink all over his face. Good thing it’s washable.
Team effort Solar System: I drew the planets (not real taxing) and Benji colored them. He picked the colors, too, with some discussion and consultation of his big planet book. He enjoyed making the far-away dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt objects all silly colors, since we don’t have good pictures to guide us. 

Later in the morning, we also made two sets of proportional planets with sidewalk chalk.

The sun is the arc to the left, while you can barely make out Pluto to the far right on the sidewalk. Distances definitely not to scale.

One, in the driveway, assumed the sun was 15 feet in diameter, and all the planets went from there. Pluto was, as expected, a speck. This really bothered Benji, who wanted to color them in. But most were too small to color.

So I made a bigger version in the street, where Mercury is 12″ in diameter. For the record, that made Jupiter 30′ in diameter and Saturn 24′. The sun was so big I just drew a straight line across the street to start.

I used our 100′ tape measure as a compass to make those big circles. When I finished Jupiter, Benji tab over and exclaimed, “Holy moly, that is big!” So perhaps we have a slightly better understanding of planet sizes relative to each other now.

The Solar System: A Preschooler’s Description

This morning, using a book about planets as a tool, I interviewed Benji about the Solar System. He has been particularly interested in planets for quite a while, so he’s learned more than your average preschooler about this (although how much he really understands is a matter of some uncertainty).

Me [Pointing to the Moon]: What’s this?
Benji: That’s the Moon.
Me: Is it a planet?
Benji: No, it a moon, it spins around the Earth [he spins himself, presumably to represent the Earth, with his hand twirling as the moon to demonstrate]
Me: Oh. What makes Earth a planet, then?
Benji: Moons go around planets [more spinning], planets go around moons.
Me: Planets go around moons? [Dang, we were doing so well!] Don’t planets go around the Sun?
Benji: Oh, yeah! Planets go around the Sun.
Me: What about the Sun? Is the Sun a planet?
Benji: No, the Sun is a big hot thing in the middle, that the planets go around. See, the yellow is hot and the blue is cold [indicates the picture on the page, where the Sun is shown on the left-hand side with a yellowish glow extending through the orbit of Mercury towards Venus, and then it fades into pale blue and then into dark indigo out around Pluto on the far right side]. This side of Mercury [towards the sun] is hot. This side cold. Venus and Mercury have no moons. Mercury too hot. Venus, the atmosphere catch any moons [?!]

Then, with no additional prompting, he added: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars all ROCK. THESE big planets, Jupiter and Saturn, GAS GIANTS. No rock, they all gas. These two is Uranus and Neptune, they ICE GIANTS, they have place to land [uses a tripod of fingers to indicate a space ship landing]. Uranus tipped over, Neptune reeeeeally far away and cold.
Me: Why is Uranus tipped over?
Benji: [long pause] I no know.
Me: Nobody knows, so that’s OK. If gas giants are all gas, are ice giants all ice?
Benji: Yes. [oops, some confusion about the composition of the ice giants!]
Me: That’s a lot of ice.
Benji: And Pluto have some little chunks of blue ice on it too.
Me: Do planets do anything for us?
Benji: One planet, Earth! It do lots for us.
Continue Reading >>

Benji in the Human Body

We have been reading Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body , and playing some at being chased by white blood cells. This morning Benji took it to another level and decided we should make a model of the human body.

Now, granted, this does look like a pile of pillows, but Benji’s model actually has:
– a brain (the lambskin),
– a heart (brown square pillow),
– lungs (yellow square pillows),
– oxygenated blood (red blanket) and deoxygenated blood (blue blanket)
– a stomach with green food in it (brown towel), and
– miscellaneous internal organs (other pillows)



We did decide to gloss over excretion and what happens to food waste. Some things we really don’t need to act out.

Sometimes I worry that our kid is getting too much science. But then I think, you can’t have too much science!